Who hears #PrayersForOklahoma?
May 21st, 2013
04:45 PM ET

Who hears #PrayersForOklahoma?

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
[twitter-follow screen_name='BurkeCNN']

(CNN) - God may not notice the thousands of prayers tweeted for victims of Oklahoma’s devastating tornado - but Ricky Gervais sure has. And he is not pleased.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 75,000 people have used the hashtag #PrayForOklahoma, including pop starlets, pastors and politicians, according to Topsy.com, a trend-monitoring site.

For example, the White House tweeted,

But the hashtag and the sentiments it promotes prompted a fierce backlash on social media, led by Gervais, a British comedian, and other prominent nonbelievers.

And while one Oklahoma City pastor says he appreciates the Twitter prayers, some religious scholars say devout petitions require more than moving your hands across a keyboard.

"A prayer is supposed to have a consequence for you," said Elizabeth Drescher, a lecturer at Santa Clara University in California. "It's not an act of magic."

Gervais, an ardent foe of organized religion, was more caustic.

After MTV tweeted that pop stars Beyonce, Rihanna and Katy Perry are sending their prayers to Oklahoma, Gervais responded, “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.”

Gervais and other atheists also kick-started a counter-trend, using the hashtag #ActuallyDoSomethingForOklahoma.

“If all people are doing is praying, it is worthless,” Hemant Mehta, an Illinois math teacher who writes the blog “Friendly Atheist,” told CNN. “If they are praying and donating to the Red Cross, that’s more like it.”

Mehta is promoting a group called Foundation Beyond Belief that aims to provide a humanist response to crises like the Oklahoma tornado.

The prayer debate spilled into other social media sites as well, with commenters on CNN’s Facebook page sparring over God’s role in Monday’s destructive whirlwind.

According to Oklahoma officials, 24 people have died, many more are injured, and once-orderly streets look likes foretastes of the apocalypse.

In response to a woman who said she was praying for the victims, Facebook commenter Peter Tongue replied, “If prayer works, there wouldn’t be a disaster like this in the first place .... so please keep your religion to yourself.”

But believers had their say as well.

“God is still in control!” said Wilbur Dugger, a commenter on CNN’s Facebook page. “Everything (God) does is to get our attention. … My sympathy and prayers go out to those who get caught up in his demonstrations of (God) ruling the world.”

The social-media sparring over prayer and God’s will reflect a culture in which traditional notions of religion - and the places where people talk about faith - are changing faster than a Twitter feed, said Drescher, the Santa Clara lecturer.

“We’re watching people re-articulate what it means to be spiritual and religious,” she said.

Just a few years ago, for example, no one knew what a hashtag was. Now the “#PrayFor...” meme appears after almost every national and international tragedy.

But what exactly does it mean? Is the tweeting multitude really folding its hands in prayer, or is it a fleeting expression of existential angst? Or maybe just a trendy thing to say?

“It seems to express hope and anxiety, and maybe even helplessness,” Drescher said.

“At the same time, it evokes this strong response from people who see it as a cop-out, a way of claiming some kind of spiritual space that doesn’t actually have any meaning to the people who are posting the meme or the community they are addressing.”

Traditionally, prayer has required something of the pray-er: an orientation toward reverence, a readiness to act, Drescher continued. “You are meant to do something - and that something may not be an easy thing.”

Slapping a hashtag at the end of a tweet doesn’t meet that standard, the scholar said.

The Rev. David Johnson of St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City said the prayerful tweets mean something to him - even if he’s been too busy to read them.

Since Monday, St. Andrew’s has become a Red Cross command post and reunion site for families to find loved ones caught in the tornado’s path. The tragedy has also touched the congregation itself, with homes, and some lives, lost on Tuesday, Johnson said.

Told of the Twitter prayers, Johnson said, “that’s awesome.”

“People feel helpless - like God called them to do something but they don’t know what. That’s where prayer comes in.”

Johnson said his church appreciates the many material donations coming its way: the generator sent by a lady from Arkansas, the food and water sent from neighboring towns. But they also solicit, and are happy to receive, the many prayers recited - or tweeted - on their behalf, he said.

“We’ve seen quite a lot of trauma in the last day,” Johnson said. “Obviously, people are going to ask why God allows tornadoes to happen. That’s just part of this world. God doesn’t promise us that bad things won’t happen, he promises to help us get through it. That’s what prayer helps us do.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • United States

soundoff (3,515 Responses)
  1. mrzntejas

    We all have had times when tragedy or hardship has knocked us off of our foundation of faith: the loss of a loved one, a divorce, a serious illness, the loss of our job, a child leaving the Church. Things like these can make us resent God, to wonder why he would put us through such trials, or even ask if there is a God at all.
    Jesus asks us for a response that is intertwined in faith. He wants us to consider not only the evidence right before our eyes – the evidence that may move us to lose faith – but also the invisible evidence of his love, His promises, and his grace. He especially asks us, in the most challenging situations, to trust Him. He asks us to trust in his love for our family. He asks us to believe that he is with us – even if we feel all alone.
    If we try and deal with the challenges in our life alone, we will be dragged down. We will know only doubt and anger and fear. We will end up at the mercy of the situation before us, with no confidence that we can move through it peacefully.
    It does not have to be this way. What were Jesus’ words right before he ascended into heaven? “I am with you always until the end of age” (Matthew 28:20) was Jesus giving us something we could rely on? Was he just saying something nice to comfort us? Is this promise an empty saying or is it something that we can believe in even if though we still feel alone? Jesus wants us to use Him to help us thru the most trying times.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • mason

      God does not hear the pleading prayers of little children or adults pleading not to be slaughtered by a tornado, because their is no God. "I do not believe in a personal God" -Albert Einstein March 24, 1954

      May 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • DeathsChoice

      "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." – Albert Einstein

      May 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish' – Albert Einstein.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      I face my challenges, fears and troubles by myself with a little help from my friends and family. Asking for an invisible sky-buddy to help out is delusional to say the least. And to think that a "child leaving the church" is a crisis is a bit overly dramtic don't you think. I applaud any child who questions a belief system that was undoubtedly pounded into them by their parents since they were too young to reason. Did you have a crisis when your children stopped believing in Santa Claus? To a logical and rational being, the God and Santa stories are equally ludicrous.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  2. SDFrankie

    Two days ago God killed 24 people in Oklahoma, nine of them children. Now get on your knees and worship his glorious being if you don't want to be next.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      God bless thought control

      May 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Bells B.

      Snoresville. What a childish statement from someone who fears confronting the idea of the possibility of god. Such a simplistic view that doesn't closely resemble anything that's associated with worship.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Bells, Why do you think we fear the possibility of a god? I believe that there is the possibility of a god, about as much as I believe in the possibility of unicorns; when I see evidence of either I will believe.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  3. Dingleberry Jackson


    May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  4. gotaimservices

    It is hard to conceive that God wants to harm His children, but, Yes disasters still happens. What if someone that was praying everyday and heard the voice of God speak to Him/Her about catastrophes. If this person would have come out and said something about a disaster in this city would you have believe them? (Look @ Noah)Of course not, including believers and myself. Because we live in a world of facts (science) but if we understand how God works and love us instead of judging Him from the people that try to follow Him we could have a better understanding of His love.
    I agree with Ricky Gervais you have to do something besides Praying because faith without work it just words. "The Truth will set you free"

    May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  5. Lillian

    The greatest lie Satan ever told was convincing humanity that he didn t exist. God help you non-believers.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • DJ

      Yes, and our everyday actions speak more for our behalf than our prayers..obedience gains the ear of God.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • sam stone

      Spend a lot of time on your knees, Lillian?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • Jiminy Cricket

      God created your satan character knowing full well the consequences...god is OK with anything satan does.

      The greatest scam ever pulled on humans is any one of the thousands of religions.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      nah the greatest lie 'satan' ever told was convincing you lot god exists.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • Lillian

      LOL! You atheists are funny!

      May 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      LOL, You believers are sad. "God" created Satan, yet he doesn't just get rid of Satan. Instead he tempts human kind with Satan. Then God punishes people who listen to God's crafty devil. What kind of God would treat his children this way? Isn't that a total hateful way to "love" his children?
      God is so great, yet he fails to leave any real evidence that he exists. I am highly educated. I work with science and technology. Why would God create a history and story that is so hard to believe? Then leave no trace to prove the story? All the biblical "miracles" can pretty much be explained away with science, (meteorology, archeology, geography, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, physics and so forth.) No God is required to explain our planet, our solar system, our universe. Plenty of imagination and denial of science is required to fully belief the Bible. I chose the logical option.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  6. MOCookie

    Everyone has there own way of expressing their concerns during times of extreme crisis. I do believe in the the power of prayer. Why do others want to spend so much time spreading hate and anger during events like this. This is not what the news should be spending their time on covering. Everyone's focus should be on the individuals and families effected by this tragic event.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      Mo: This is a religious topic blog, so this is a good topic for this area of CNN. Double blind scientific studies have repeatedly shown that prayer is not effective. In fact it has shown that praying for people who are sick has a detrimental effect. How do you explain that? You can pray all you want to boost your ego. No one prayed for the tornado to hit Moore, why would God bother to listen to prayers to help heal the city he has repeatedly tried to wipe off the map?

      May 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  7. Lynne Sullivan

    The point of the article was to not just pray, but DO something.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  8. palintwit

    "Everyone relax, Sarah Palin has proven there’s no such thing as climate change

    Pack up your temperature sensors, your climate-modeling supercomputers, your tree and ice core sample equipment. Sarah Palin has spoken on climate change, and she says it’s snowing in Alaska, ergo “global warming my gluteus maximus.” And you know it’s science because she used the Latin word for “ass.”

    Palin only backs winning horses like John McCain, Bristol and Levi’s marriage, and her own gubernatorial career, so if she says climate science is a non-starter then by god, we’re just going to throw in the towel."

    May 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • DeathsChoice

      What does this have to do with climate change? Its the worst storm since 1999... which was the worst since 1974... which was the worst since 1956.... which was the worst since... and on it goes... we hear all the time now about how this is the worst since ... until we start hearing worst weather event ever then your facts do not support your claim...

      May 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  9. Derek

    What a pointless article trying to elicit response and clicks. It worked I guess. Everyone has their own way of dealing with tragedy. Just because somebody tweets about praying for Oklahoma doesn't mean they should feel bad if they didn't donate money. If someone is an atheist, fine, respect them. If they believe in God, same thing applies. If they are gay, fine, respect them. Move on with your life Gervais. What people tweet or don't tweet is really not what's important here.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Kevin

      This is CNN's obvious purpose...to attack belief. If they were truly interested in covering "Religion" or "Belief" they would focus at LEAST some on the incredible amount of charitable work these religious organizations do. Anybody with any sense can glean the purpose of these articles. I'm not religious, but dude...CNN, be a tad more subtle.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  10. Jill

    How awful to live in a world where you believe that there is nothing beyond what we see and that children dying in schools and families having their lives and homes wiped off the earth means...nothing. There is no hope in such an outlook. Nothing to comfort you. Just random pain and misery and darkness and suffering.........God hears every prayer, every cry, every wordless lifting of the heart...every hashtag.......He hears it all. And He acts, in many ways.........Like Job of long ago, we choose to believe even when God does not tell us why and all seems lost . "Though He slay me , yet will I trust Him". And no "foundation" will ever stop Him. God be with the people of Moore, in Jesus name.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'How awful to live in a world where you believe that there is nothing beyond what we see and that children dying in schools and families having their lives and homes wiped off the earth means...nothing'

      you cant change the reality no matter how much comfort a belief in a deity gives you. Instead you realize that this is all there is so live your life well, its all you get.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      How sad it is that people have to belief in a myth that makes their life seem more important than it really is. It is arrogant to believe that in this huge universe full of millions of galaxies, billions and billions of stars, billions of planets, that our one meaningless little ball is the one reason "god" created it all. Science clearly explains the creation and existence of all of these things without the need of a invisible super ego. To believe that God did it all for mankind to live in paradise, yet "God" continually tests our faith with hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, fires, asteroids, plagues, disease, drought, lions, tigers and bears. What would be the purpose of such events? What is mankind supposed to learn from them?
      The simple explanation is that these are just natural events, explained away by science. Real scientific research has repeatedly shown that prayer is ineffective. The time spent praying to your choice of God could be better spent doing good deeds. These have immediate, visible and lasting effects.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  11. SRV

    I think we will also pray for those who do not believe in Prayer. God loves you too.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • STA STA

      Wh not pray to end starvation?

      Why use your power of prayer as an insult to well-fed people?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Stinky

      What would you rather have when the tornadoes come again, prayer or a bunker? I'd suggest a U-haul, there's just something idiotic about living in a place that gets sand-blasted ever year.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  12. alpeaston

    Recently I went through a difficult medical issue and a religious friend of mine had his "prayer group" say a prayer for me. I was so offended! I mean – if you did not want to do anything just say so – don't jerk me around! SHEESH!

    May 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • DeathsChoice

      This post amuses me. Well played.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • Bells B.

      So these were praying doctors who could have actually done something for you, but didn't? What jerks.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  13. Rochelle

    How stupid are people? If you pray for someone.. you can also donate.. completely separate items. While I am not religious, I am so sick of Athiests trying to force their "non-religion' down everyones' throat!

    May 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Rochelle, Try a little experiment: pray that the TV channel changes and do nothing else until it does – no food, no drink, etc.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • sam

      Hush up, Rochelle. When the scary atheists start going door to door trying to convince you to stop believing, you can cry about it then.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • Gary


      May 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  14. STA STA

    Matthew 6:5 tells us

    And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  15. Mysticpather

    Prayers as a form of empathy for your fellow human beings doesn't hurt, does it?

    May 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • STA STA

      The bible instructs Christians to pray in private inside a prayer closet.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Skalamoosh

      Absolutely not, but I believe that if you were standing outside a pile of rubble with people trapped, Maybe you could pray to God WHILe helping pull the rubble off of the people. God would probably want us to take action when we can and keep in mind that you can pray without closing your eyes and kneeling- prayer is just sending thoughts to God-

      May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • MOCookie

      STE STE read further on the bible and you will find that is not the case. Be informed before you make an uneducated comment.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  16. kk

    The irony is that it is pretty apparent through statistics as well as common sense that people of religious background donate far more than atheists and agnostics:


    May 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Wrong. Your facts are incorrect. Atheists give more to charity than beleivers.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • Richard

      Actually, non-believers are big donors and they accept that people have the responsibility to pick up after natural disasters. They don't bother speculating whether it was God's will that Moore be wiped out, or that God should be placated with prayer. They just see a natural disaster and reach out to help others in need.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • most people are posers

      Is that $/person or total $? As there are many more people claiming to be religious than non-religious, the only number that has meaning is donation/person. I not only donate about $1k/year to animal foundations, I also volunteer almost every month and I am a-theistic. Oh right, I also hold a very full-time career. Most of the other people I know (theistic and other) don't donate money or time outside their family. The question for every reader here is how frequently do you put your money/time where your mouth is? Many of you theists and a-theists will stumble over that one. The point? Get out there and do something every now and then. There is your Sunday Celebration and then the "service" is supposed to begin but few people do any service.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • DeathsChoice

      Captain Ignorance – Actually if you look at the independant research done in 2012 it shows that religious people tend to give more. It also started that higher religion based states gave more as a whole. For example, Utah gave the most and by population is a very religious state.... You can look the numbers up yourself under the research done by the group Chronicle of Philanthropy... but it may mess up your spouting nonsense void of fact... which seems to be what youre good at.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • sam

      That's cute. Nice try.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • .

      First off, guess what? It's not a contest.

      Secondly, non believers don't crow about it when they give to charity. They do it because it needs to be done, not because some church held a bake sale.

      Believers love to make sure everyone knows how charitable they are.

      Non believers tend to shut their traps and just get stuff done, no praise necessary. I wish you snotty posters here would learn to do the same.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      when churches get labelled 'charities' then its not much of a claim.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  17. Chris

    The force that many refer to as "God" can't save humankind from itself anymore than friends or family can protect loved ones either coincidentally or deliberately placed in harm's way. Omnipresence and omniscience doesn't translate into physical feats or swoop-in saves of the Spiderman or Superman variety. And in any case, "saving" usually refers to an improvement in the condition of one's soul rather than one's body, and that is the purpose of prayer. To the extent that prayer affects the collective and motivates them to physical action, it can certainly have a tangible affect in this world, but it really shouldn't be touted as a means of "getting stuff".

    May 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      any being supposed able to create things with just a word can stop a tornado with another word.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  18. STA STA

    Nothing fails like prayer.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • jason

      Only prayers work. The previous Boosh sent prayers post Katrina and we all know how well it worked(If you think it didn't work...think about what he prEyed for.....hint: Iraq war)

      May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  19. sly

    Oh God folks, everyone get over it. Let the religious folks get on their knees and do what makes them feel better inside. Everyone else, do what you normally do when there are tragedies – help out as you see fit.

    What's the big deal? If blacks could co-exist with southern racists for 100 years, I'm sure y'all godsters and non-godsters can get over your differences – it's not really important in the real world.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  20. God fearing

    This guy is ridiculous! Some people may not be finanicallly able to give to these families, but welift them up in our prayers because there is a mighty God who can give peace even in the midst of this crazy world. These thiings happen not because God makes them happen but because of the sin of the world. Sin and destruction has happened since the beginning of time. And if you have no CLUE and don't believe in ANYTHING then you have no right ridicule the ones that do believe in a God who loves us despite our sins of the world. This article digusts me.

    May 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • God Doesn't Like You

      You mean your God doesn't provide you with enough to help others?

      May 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • MelissaBee2

      Actually...we DO have the right to ridicule.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • jason

      Isn't it phunny for most R-christians.....sin applies to gays and not to adultery. Separation of church and state when it comes to helping the needy and merging of church and state when it comes to gays. Murder millions in the name of profit/religion...the funniest part is they even have ssid to have figured out a prayer that would force god to give their followers riches and any one without the riches is cursed by god. Osama took over Islam and GOP took over Jesus

      May 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • evidence believing

      I believe in the Higgs boson and I can tell you that really is something. Why? We are all free to examine the evidence that supports its existince and physical properties. I believe in the scientific method. Experiments to measure or characterize gods have produced no measurable evidence, which strongly suggests Jehova is as real as Ra. If you know Shiva isn't real, I would have to ask you why and what evidence you have for that assertion.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • ScienceNeedsNoMagic

      You lift them up in prayers? How amazing of you! That's a rather arrogant claim don't you think? "There is a mighty God who can create peace in this crazy world." Really? Then why all the wars, many fought in His name? Not very mighty of Him is it, to let all these wars go on in his name. Really? Sin created a tornado? You honestly belief that? Since creates earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, asteroids, blizzards? Then all that science stuff that explains how these things happen is just liberal media nonsense? Interesting you say "Sin and destruction have happened since the beginning of time". There was no sin at the beginning of time according to your "good book". However, science clearly shows us that these things have been going on for billions of years, yet mankind is only a few million years old. Was the planet sinful before ma existed?
      I have lots of clues, and there are no tangible clues to your sky fairy. I also believe in the power of the scientific method, experiments, research and proven facts. I have just as much right to ridicule you as you do to ridicule Muslims and other non-real religions. I just chose one more non-real religion to not belive in than you do. Your lack of reasoning amuses me.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.